GERMANY HAS become the latest and largest catch in the US drive to sign up Europe to open skies. With this new bilateral safely initialed, the USA has now signed up 11 European nations to open skies, representing 40% of the region's air market.

The deal marks a personal victory for United Airlines chairman Gerald Greenwald. Not only has the new German bilateral given United's alliance with Lufthansa a host of new opportunities, but it is also a success for his evangelical campaign to free the world's airways.

Coming in fresh to aviation less than two years ago, Greenwald has railed long and hard that the web of restrictive international bilaterals under which he found the industry operating. These he says owe more to the outdated protectionist politics of 50 years ago, than to the needs of consumers or even that airlines that serve them.

He has a point. Consumers of another global service, such as telecommunications, would indeed be appalled to find they could not put through an international call because their government had negotiated capacity limits or denied access to foreign telephone companies.

The goal of tearing down the barriers, which beset aviation, is certainly a worthy one. The question that still lingers is, whether that is in reality, what the current round of US open-skies initiatives, are actually about.

On the evidence so far, the USA is still as hidebound by motives of politics and profit as the best of them. Having put its own carriers through a traumatic deregulation and seen them now emerge leaner and fitter from the other side, the US Government quite naturally wants to enforce this advantage on a global stage.

There is not necessarily anything wrong with this as a US tactic, but neither does it give the USA the moral high ground that it so clearly believes that it occupies.

Germany, like others in Europe, appears to have been tempted as much by the prospect of winning anti-trust immunity for the alliance between its own flag carrier and United, as by the greater good of market forces.

As British Airways - admittedly a partial observer - has been quick to point out, there is a glaring contradiction here. To secure a deal, designed to create freer and more competitive markets, the USA has handed out immunity from the laws, designed to ensure that the competition takes place.

Neither has the US proved as open-handed when it comes to lifting restrictions on foreign ownership and cabotage, which would arguably do as much for competition and consumers as any anti-trust deal.

The USA has also show marked reluctance to renegotiate its better treaties. Take the bilateral signed with Japan. For decades, Japan has railed against the inherent inequalities it hands to the two US encumbents, Northwest and United.

In particular, these carriers have extensive beyond rights, which they use to carry around 1.8 million passengers a year from Japan to points in Asia. Worse still, Japan Airlines (JAL) claims that the bulk of these passengers, originate in Japan.

By contrast, JAL complains that it has a single heavily restricted right to fly from Los Angeles to Brazil twice a week.

Other Japanese and US carriers, without the status of treaty encumbents, fly under even more severe capacity and access constraints.

Having so far resisted pressures to renegotiate the Japanese bilateral, the US Government now seems poised to start talks under pressure from the open-skies lobby. When JAL frets that this open skies may be no more balanced than the bilateral it would replace, its concerns are hard to ignore. Even with its new found liberalism, the USA has never allowed foreign carriers rights, such as those enjoyed in Japan and shows no signs of doing so, in the future.

While few would defend the distortions of the existing bilateral system, the USA should look hard at what it is actually offering by way of open skies. It may find room to make its open-skies policy just a little more open.o

"Other Japanese and US carriers, without the status of treaty encumbents, fly under even more severe capacity and access constraints."

Source: Flight International